On the Saturday of Easter weekend, the longest road trip in professional sports forced the Toronto Wolfpack from their beds in a motel in the north of England at 4 a.m., about eight hours after they secured the biggest win of their season to date. The team’s captain, Josh McCrone, had only nodded off to sleep two hours earlier. But there was a plane to France to catch, and another game on Monday that loomed just as large.
“I’ve got a young family, so sleep deprivation’s not something that’s new to me,” said McCrone, 31. The early wakeup was a bit harsher on some of his younger teammates, he concedes: “It was different.”
Different is a fact of life for the Wolfpack, the only Canadian franchise in the British rugby league system — and the first North American team in any sport to compete in a league based somewhere on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean. With a record of 9-1-1 midway through their second season in existence, the Wolfpack are currently the No. 1 side in the competition’s second division, the Championship. They’ve attained that standing without playing a single game in their home country.
Consider the following facts, presented in ascending order of quirkiness. The Wolfpack’s 2018 season began on Feb. 4; their first home game is scheduled for May 5. Due to ongoing upgrades to the turf at their home field, that game will be held in Markham, Ont. The Wolfpack don’t play inside Toronto until June 9, at which point they have eight straight home dates through to the end of July. And because of that skewed schedule and his Australian roots, their captain has yet to actually set foot in Canada.
“The closest thing to Canada I’ve done is eat maple syrup,” said McCrone, who signed with Toronto last September after spending nine seasons with teams in Australia’s National Rugby League. “I’m a little excited to get over there and have a look.”
This past off-season, the Wolfpack brought McCrone and other players with laudable track records in England and Australia to the club in hopes of finishing in the top four of the Championship, which would leave them one playoff win away from earning promotion to British rugby league’s top division, the Super League. It has been the franchise’s stated destination since it debuted in the third tier of the ladder, League 1, in 2017, a year in which the Wolfpack won 20 of their 22 matches, outscored their opponents by 42 points per game and regularly drew crowds of 7,000 fans to Lamport Stadium in downtown Toronto. (The British teams were lucky to exceed crowds of 1,000.)
Swelling the ranks of those supporters and spreading the word about rugby league — the 13-player-a-side variant of the more familiar rugby union — in Canada were opportunities that McCrone says were too enticing to pass up in free agency. Teammates have described the game-day atmosphere at Lamport to him in glowing terms, though he won’t get to experience it firsthand for several more weeks. Nine of the other 11 teams in the Championship operate out of northern England (one plays in London and another in Toulouse, France), so the Wolfpack have made the city of Manchester their headquarters for the road portion of their season. The players train at a local university four days a week and bus to hostile opposing stadiums every weekend.
“At the minute, nobody’s making much of a noise about us playing all our games away, and that’s the nature of the beast over here in northern England — they’d rather criticize than praise,” said Paul Rowley, the Wolfpack’s head coach. “Hopefully, (coming home) will give us an advantage, and rightly so and it should be. We’ve endured a horrendous schedule, and we’ve come through it.”
Scroll through the map to see where each of the Wolfpack’s 11 opponents is based.
To help keep Canadian fans apprised of all the action in England, the Wolfpack arranged before the season to have all their games televised on Game TV and broadcast online via CBC Sports. But even though it solves one of the problems of competing five time zones away from home for three straight months, the deal is not without its side effects. McCrone says the presence of cameras, a rarity in the Championship, makes every game a monumental affair for their opponent — “a massive opportunity for them to showcase what they can do.” To this point in the season, the Wolfpack’s average point differential is plus-9.9 points per game, a far cry from their annihilation of League 1 last year.
“I think we did learn the hard way initially that it didn’t matter who we were playing against — they’re going to aim up and it’s going be a good contest,” McCrone said. “It took us a little while to get over that frustration. There are teams we probably we should have won more easily against, but it’s just not going to happen.”
Rowley believes his club has been more dominant than the score lines indicate, especially because home-field advantage in the Championship can be “a real leveller.” He says referees, influenced by noise from the crowd, have tended to rule against them on close calls for the bulk of their road schedule, and there are strange variations between the different grounds they visit each week. The Dewsbury Rams’ pitch, for instance, is narrower than regulation. At Batley, the playing surface is situated on a slope, meaning one team has to wage a literal uphill battle in each half. The seating arrangements at most stadiums enable fans to shout epithets from within a few feet of the visitors’ bench. One opposing supporter got close enough to grab hold of Rowley at a recent game.
“Going to these places has been really difficult and it’s really tested the mental toughness of our players,” Rowley said. “If anything, it feels like we’re a bit of a small army, marching from place to place and sticking our flag in the ground. It’s been like a siege mentality. We’re happy to go and conquer each and every little town we visit. We’re enjoying it, but we still can’t wait to get home.”
Even as they pursue a berth in the Super League — where, Rowley notes, he wouldn’t be forced to coach any games from the stands, as is also the case at Dewsbury — the Wolfpack have made clear that they are simultaneously working towards something bigger. In a global age, they have the chance to help establish the blueprint of how to run a globetrotting team.
In the past several years, each of North America’s four major sports leagues have started to regularly stage games abroad, and the NFL and NBA have dreamed aloud about eventually expanding to Europe. The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, recently touted his desire to bring an NFL team and a future Super Bowl game to the city. Along with Kunlun Red Star and the Vanke Rays, the two Chinese teams that joined the Canadian Women’s Hockey League this past season, the Wolfpack’s experience will create knowledge of what it takes to operate a transoceanic franchise, and of the challenges such an entity would face.
Scott Lidbury, who heads up the Wolfpack’s business operations from Toronto as their general commercial manager, says competing far from home for months on end poses obvious logistical issues. But the travel shouldn’t be prohibitive for leagues that already stretch across North America, he added: “A flight from Manchester to Toronto is not that much further than a flight from Toronto to Los Angeles.” (The Manchester flight spans two extra time zones and takes about 2.5 more hours in the air.) Per a Wolfpack spokesman, hundreds of fans have flown to the U.K. or France to watch the team play this season, and more than 100 Swinton Lions supporters are planning to travel from Manchester for the game in Markham on May 5.
Lidbury, an Australian who moved to Canada four years ago, became an instant fan of the Wolfpack upon their debut last season and joined the front office himself in late 2017. He says the franchise’s global aspirations — introducing rugby league to people in Toronto and courting more seasoned followers of the game in northern England — have intrigued some club executives in the Super League, which could find itself sending teams to play at Lamport as soon as next season.
“We’re seen as the franchise that has done a lot of things that a lot of them have wanted to do. How do you broaden your reach globally? How do you tap into the North American market?” Lidbury said.
“There are a lot of possibilities out there in terms of having a global fan base. We just want to show it can be done.”
For Rowley, McCrone and the rest of the squad, the immediate priority is to maintain their grasp on the top spot in the Championship standings. The Wolfpack’s game at Halifax on Saturday will be their 12th of the regular season, the exact midpoint of the campaign. The team has reeled off seven straight victories in league play, including wins at Batley and Dewsbury in the last few weeks. Just before that came Easter weekend, the high point of all the time they’ve spent on the road.
On the night of Friday, March 30, the Wolfpack dealt the Featherstone Rovers their first home loss of the season, 24-16. The win vaulted them from fourth place in the Championship into second, one point back of Toulouse Olympique — the opponent they subsequently flew out on a couple hours’ sleep to face. Saturday was spent resting and recovering in France, and Sunday was a training day. On Monday afternoon, the Wolfpack summoned enough energy to withstand Toulouse 24-22.
It was the French side’s first defeat at home, too.
“I don’t think you can get a tougher run of games than that,” Rowley said. “Everyone was tired, including staff and players, but you get your rewards at the end of the day. It’s worth it.”
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